Heists (robberies) have always a popular topic for movies and whether they are a success (as in Oceans Eleven) or failures (such as Reservoir Dogs), the drama of getting in, stealing the valuables and getting away with the loot make for a great story. Its odd then that this staple of the big screen has largely been ignored by computer game developers. One exception, however, is the Payday series of games; Payday: The Heist and it's follow up, Payday 2. Originally launched on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, the game has been re-released, with new content and a slight brush-up on PS4 and Xbox One as the Crimewave Edition.
In Payday 2, you play one of a four man crime team who are charged with undertaking a number of different crimes including robberies, assassinations, drug running and criminal damage. The jobs are chosen from crime.net, an underworld crime brokerage system, which is run by the shadowy Bain who manages the administrative side of the jobs such as making sure you have the right equipment, negotiating your release if you get caught by the police and arranging your escape if things go wrong. Jobs vary in length from a single day to complex, multi-stage jobs which run over multiple days with the longer, more complex jobs paying more but being more risky. If you fail part of a standard muti-day job you can replay that stage but if you fail a single stage of a pro job, which is more lucrative, you fail the entire job!
A vital part of the game is your career progression and follows your character from a petty robber to a master criminal. Each job you undertake awards you with experience points which lead to higher levels and these in turn lead to better equipment and skills but also harder jobs and more skilful enemies. There are four roles; Mastermind, a specialist in planning jobs and controlling hostages (more on them later), Enforcer, a weapons specialist, the Technician who specialises in breaching safes and doors with drills and explosives and the Ghost who stealthily evades or dispatches security systems and enemies alike! Each role has a specific skill tree and you are free to unlock skills in each one meaning you can either choose to specialise in a particular role or have a broad range of skills. Skills either improve your combat or theft abilities such as reloading your gun faster, improving your accuracy, allowing you to pick the lock of safes or blow them open. Each role's skill tree also provides you with access to specialist equipment such as ammunition packs, medical kills, explosives, making tools or automatic sentry guns.
Before each job you have the opportunity to choose your weapons, armour and equipment and check out any intelligence about have about the job. Intelligence can be obtained (at a price) by the member of the team who is hosting the job and can be maps, insider information, extra equipment or access to security systems. This planning phase allows you to decide how you are going to tackle the job; are you going to go in with light body armour and concealable weapons, which will help you infiltrate your way in to the premises quietly or tooled up like a walking tank knowing that the police will be called and you need to fight them off?
Once a job has started the game plays like a first person shooter. Some jobs allow you to investigate the premises you play to rob, although you are limited in your actions as anything suspicions, such as picking locks or cutting fences, are not permitted until you have donned your mask which makes anyone who see you either call the police or attack you. You are armed with the main weapon, sidearm, armour and equipment you have chosen but can be easily overwhelmed by the police if rushed and having the right skills and equipment for the job has a large effect on the success of your job. To make things a little easier, any equipment you have bought in the planning phase will be waiting for you as well as items hidden around play area such as planks which can be used for barricades or security passes which allow you to open doors which you would either need to spend considerable time opening. Controlling any civilians in the area is vital as, should any escape, they can raise the alarm so you can either try and make them keep their heads down or restrain the with cable ties, if you have enough, and use them as hostages. Should you face armed resistance or the police are called, your armour can soak up a certain amount of incoming fire before you start to take damage yourself. Luckily your armour regenerates quickly, and this mechanic forces you to think about cover and flanking your enemies, but your health doesn't meaning that unless you manage to find medical kit and patch yourself up, you could become downed. When downed, you are unable to move and can only fight with your sidearm until unless you are incapacitated out by further incoming fire. If your team members are unable to help you up in thirty seconds you are arrested and take no further action in the game until your team members escape or Bain negotiates a hostage trade. If your entire team is arrested, the job is over.
Although the number of jobs is limited, the location of the equipment, the layouts of the buildings and security measures vary each time you play ensuring that no two jobs are ever quite the same. Of course, just like in the movies, things don't always go according to plan and sometimes your method of escape changes during the course of a job or you run in to problems between the sections of a job meaning you have to fight your way past police roadblocks or escape from ambushes with your loot.
At the end of every job you complete successfully is your payday, the day where your cut of the money is allocated to you and where the game takes its name. Your cut of the heist divided between money you can spend and your offshore account which is your retirement fund. In addition, three playing cards are dealt out, face down, and you get to pick one which could be money, weapon mods or items to customise your character.
Despite the re-release of the game for the next-gen consoles, the game has a number of serious issues. Unusually the game performs better, graphically, on the Xbox One than the PS4, but stuffers from poor frame rates and the textures often have a blocky, low-res feel to them. The artificial intelligence, which controls the civilians, guards, police and the other members of your crew when playing with less than four human players, can be very unpredictable. The AI members of your team completely ignore the objectives of the heist, such as picking up the loot, making some of them almost unplayable, civilians often stand up in the middle of firefights, resulting in their deaths, and the attacking police can be very unpredictable, often ignoring cover or your crew. On one heist, I saw four SWAT policemen walking backwards, crouched, down the middle of the street, straight past my character, ignoring me completely! However, the biggest issue at launch was the awful state of the multi-player match-making code which was unreliable on PS4 and completely broken on Xbox One, which meant that the game could only be played in private matches or single-player mode (with the broken AI). As I post this review, the game studio have released a patch to fix the multi player issues, three weeks after the launch of the game, but it hasn't fully addressed them.
When playing with a group of friends (and if the AI behaves itself), Payday 2: Crimewave Edition is a good game but it is too broken in many other places to be worth buying at the moment. Until it's fixed, this game remains more bad than good.
• Game reviewed on Xbox One